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TV CRITIC’s CORNER

‘Designated Survivor’ and an unprepared president

Kiefer Sutherland in ABC’s “Designated Survivor.”
Kiefer Sutherland in ABC’s “Designated Survivor.”(Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC via AP)

Designated Survivor 10 p.m., ABC

Who’s going to be president?

That IRL question helps to make “Designated Survivor” one of the fall TV season’s more zeitgeisty series. The thriller is about a low-level cabinet member who becomes president when everyone above him is killed during an attack on the Capitol during the State of the Union address.

Basically, someone who has no business in the Oval Office, who has no real experience in high-level politics and making decisions that will ripple out across the world, becomes a powerful leader at a time of crisis and confusion.

That’s a very, very scary premise, don’t you think?

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But Kiefer Sutherland’s Tom Kirkland appears to be a gentle man who takes the oath of office out of a sense of responsibility — especially when he faces a rabid military adviser longing to fire off a few missiles before looking into what exactly happened. The pilot is terrific, as it moves briskly through the horrific events that lead to Kirkland’s ascension, featuring troubling images of the Capitol sending fire into the Washington, D.C., sky. “Designated Survivor” is definitely a network product, without the evocative scripting and pacing that can add so much depth to a story. But still, it’s compelling.

Also a plus: Natascha McElhone, who plays Tom’s wife. The actress, who starred in “Californication,” adds distinction to what could be a forgettable role.

At the end of the first hour, I wasn’t sure what the series was going to become, now that the setup is in place. Will it be mostly an action thriller, a kind of “24” but with Sutherland as a more dignified and sedentary (but no less grunty) American? Or will it be a political drama about how the upper echelons of government work, especially in times of disaster? I’m hoping for the latter.

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Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.